Dear chef Avelino

Composit Zélia-Edit

We are writing to thank you for the delicious food you have been cooking at Zélia in Bombarral since 1981. It’s hard to serve high-quality traditional food at affordable prices year after year. That is why so many chefs burn out and so many restaurants close. But you keep going, like a marathon runner, cheered by all the families that come to your restaurant to enjoy a great meal.

We first tried your cooking many years ago at the Bombarral wine fair. We had an amazing grilled rabbit on a magical Summer night under an ancient oak tree. Since then, we had lunch and dinner at Zélia many times. Your codfish, bathed in shimmering olive oil, surrounded by thinly-sliced fried potatoes and adorned by onions, pepper and tomato is irresistible. And the duck rice seasoned with a pinch of raisins and toasted pine nuts is the best we ever had.

Your ingredients are always excellent and everything you cook has a special touch. We like the fact that you remodeled the dining room but didn’t change the food, which is as great as always.

We wish you a long life, as wonderful as your cooking!

Restaurante Zélia is located at Rua dos Combatentes da Grande Guerra 9, Sanguinhal, Bombarral 2540-454, tel. 262 605 157.

 

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Lunch at Noah

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We had a perfect lunch at Noah, a scenic restaurant in the Santa Cruz beach, with very dear old friends. Our table was so close to the sea that it looked like the waves were taking part in our conversation.

The food was simple, grilled sardines and peixe galo (dory) fillets with tomato and pepper rice. A rosé called Pinta Negra produced nearby by Adega Mãe paired perfectly with the fish.

Time flew while we enjoyed the delicious meal, the eternal beauty of the sea and the precious gift of friendship.

Noah Surf House is on Avenida do Atlantico, A dos Cunhados,  tel 261 932 355. Click here for their web site.

 

Making Alenquer a food destination

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In the 19th century, Alenquer was one of Portugal’s premier wine regions. Its fortunes waned for much of the 20th century. But the tide turned and Alenquer rightly regained its status as a prized wine destination. A young chef called João Simões wants to help Alenquer become a food destination as well.

João apprenticed at the Ritz and worked in many posh hotels and restaurants. Three years ago, he decided to return to his roots to recover and renew the culinary traditions of the region where he was born. He uses local products like quails and Rocha pears and works with farmers on projects like producing goat cheese in the Montejunto mountain. His restaurant is called Casta 85. Casta means varietal, a reference to the region’s wine tradition. The number 85 refers to the chef’s birth year.

The dining room is decorated with furniture procured in the chef’s village. It is a pleasant space that overlooks the Alenquer river. This tributary of the Tagus flows proudly through town, reveling from the praise it received in Luis Vaz de Camões’ epic poem, the Lusíadas.

Casta 85’s service is relaxed and attentive. Ana Santana, our genial server, met the chef when they both played in a brass band. The chef’s old instrument is now part of the decoration and some of the band’s brashness inspires the intense, harmonious food.

We tried appetizing alheira croquettes with apple sauce and crisp green bean tempura with garlic mayonnaise. Next, came a delicious quail Brás style served with a quail egg, fried onion and cassava chips. Our meal ended with a luscious duck leg served over a risotto of mushrooms and asparagus.

We returned from Alenquer through a scenic road that took us though countless vineyards. We can’t wait to go back to visit the wine quintas and have another great lunch at Casta 85!

Casta 85 is located at Largo do Espírito Santo, 31 in Alenquer, tel. 915 761 911.

Mugasa

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Bairrada is a region in the center of Portugal known for its refreshing sparkling wine and its “leitão” (roasted piglet). The best leitão in Bairrada comes from a restaurant called Mugasa located in the middle of nowhere in a small village called Fogueira.

The restaurant’s owner, Álvaro Nogueira, retired from a desk job and opened a small café in 1981. He wanted to learn the art of roasting piglets to turn his café into a restaurant. But the learning curve was steep until one of his cousins, a master roaster, offered to teach him.

After this jump start, Álvaro kept perfecting his art. In 1991, he entered a competition organized by a gastronomic society and won first prize.

“Why is roasting so difficult?” we asked Álvaro. ” Every pig is different, with a different size and fat content. We use six wood-fired ovens and every oven is different. We have to make constant adjustments to guarantee perfection. That is why we only roast four piglets per oven, to have time to make all the necessary adjustments.”

“In the first 20 minutes, the oven has to be very hot, between 280 and 300 degree Celsius to make the outside crunchy. Then we cover the wood with ashes to bring down the temperature. There are many details so we have to pay close attention. The traditional seasoning made with garlic, lard, white pepper, and salt is important but you cannot use it to cover up mistakes.”

We sat at the table to try Mugasa’s leitão. It is indeed remarkable, crunchy on the outside, succulent on the inside, with just enough seasoning to accentuate the taste of the meat.

Álvaro is very proud of the celebrities that drive to Fogueira just to eat at his restaurant. But he is even more proud of his son Ricardo. “My son is the best master roaster in Portugal,” Álvaro said smiling. “He learned my secrets and discovered new ones.”

Many Bairrada wine makers eat regularly at Mugasa, so you often overhear discussions about weather conditions and grape maturation. The restaurant offers some of the best wines from these producers at very attractive prices.

The formula for Mugasa’s success is easy to write down but hard to replicate: amazing leitão plus great Bairrada wine = unforgettable meals.

Mugasa is located at Largo da Feira, Fogueira, Aveiro, tel. 234 741 061

 

Buxa

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Natália Maia, the manager of the Guimarães pousada, recommended Buxa, a small restaurant right in the center of the Guimarães historic district.

As soon as we arrived, we recognized all the traits of the restaurants we favor.  First, the place was completely full. Second, there were people without reservation trying to charm the waiters into giving them a table (can you believe their nerve?) Third, there was a rhythm to the service: waiters moved with agility and grace to the beat of the kitchen drums. Fourth, the menu is small, focused on a few perfect preparations. And fifth, the price is right.

We loved the codfish with broa, a symphony of traditional flavors of the Portuguese cuisine: codfish, olive oil, corn bread (broa) and potatoes. The black pork was grilled to perfection, salty and satisfying. The tripe cooked with beans had layers of wonderful flavors (if tripe is too adventurous for you it is worthwhile ordering it just to eat the amazing beans). The octopus was tender and delicious. And the “alheira,” a sausage from nearby Mirandela, was spectacular.

We confess that we arrived at Buxa without reservations and charmed the waiter into giving us a table. But we promptly made reservations for the next day. The food at Buxa is too good to leave to chance!

Buxa is located at Largo da Oliveira 23 in Guimarães, tel. 252 058 242. Reservations are a must.

Dona Luisa’s famous codfish recipe

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A year ago, we had a memorable meal at Solar dos Amigos, a restaurant in the small village of Guisado near Caldas da Rainha. We returned this year for another great experience. Our lunch started with succulent lamb chops, grilled to perfection. They were followed by a wispy, tasty “Bacalhau à Campino” (peasant style codfish) served inside the hearty country bread that is baked at the restaurant.

Dona Luisa Nunes, the restaurant’s owner and chef, is in great form and so is her octogenarian father who continues to produce a delightful wine that pairs perfectly with the food served at the Solar.

When we praised her famous codfish Campino style, dona Luisa offered to give us the recipe so we could share it with you, dear reader. Follow the instructions and you’ll have a delicious codfish meal. But, will it taste as good as when dona Luisa prepares it?  Not a chance!

Codfish Campino style

Soak 4 slices of salted codfish for two days, changing the water periodically to remove the salt.

Boil the cod for 15 minutes. Reserve the water, remove the skin and the bones, and shred the fish by hand. Boil a green cabbage and drain the water (dona Luisa favors a pusa-drum-head cabbage, known in Portugal as “repolho coração de boi”).  Open the top of a country bread, remove the inside of the bread and soak it for 5 minutes in the water used to boil the codfish. Carefully drain the water from the bread.

Combine olive oil and sliced garlic in a frying pan. Add the soaked bread, the shredded codfish, the cabbage and 2 pounds of cooked red beans. Season with salt and pepper and let the mixture simmer gently for a few minutes. Place the mixture inside the country bread, cover with the bread lid, season with olive oil and place in the oven for a few minutes, until the bread turns golden. Decorate with parsley sprigs and serve.

Solar dos Amigos is located on a small village called Guisado, 100 km north of Lisbon. The restaurant’s address is Rua Principal, 49, Guisado, Caldas da Rainha. Even though the restaurant is large, it is a good idea to make reservations. Their telephone number is 262-877-135. Click here for their website.

Eating with the best people in Vila Real

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“I’m sorry, but we cannot accommodate you. We won’t have a free table any time soon,” said Eleutério Lameirão in a serious tone that agrees with his solemn name. His small restaurant, located in a residential area of Vila Real, was full of regular customers.

Before we left, we took a glance at the menu and found a quote by Julia Child: “People who love to eat are always the best people.” Inspired by this quote, we decided to wait. Eleutério gave us a puzzled look, but fifteen minutes later he had a table for us.

We ordered rissois, fried breaded dough shaped like a half moon with a shrimp or meat filling. Eleutério brought them to the table and waited around to see our reaction. They were crispy on the outside and full of flavor on the inside.  When we said “wow, these are amazing!” Eleutétio abandoned his shy demeanor and smiled, pleased by our reaction. He went back into the kitchen and brought us a plate of codfish cakes. These were also extraordinary: light, airy and slightly crunchy, a four-part harmony of cod, parsley, egg, and potato.

Finally, we had small sardines called “petingas,” incredibly fresh, fried and seasoned to perfection. They came with an hearty bean rice that melted in the mouth and blended with the salty sardines.

The restaurant was still very busy but Eleutério came to chat with us. He told us that the menu is always small, three or four items made with the best fresh ingredients and modestly priced. The recipes have been refined over many years and require great attention to detail. “It is hard work because there’s no room for distractions. Everything has to be right, the timing, the temperature, the seasoning. But it is worth it because when everything is right the taste is amazing,” he said. If you ever have the privilege of eating at O Lameirão, we think you’ll agree.

The restaurant O Lameirão is located on Rua da Cruz, Vila Real, tel. 259 346 881.